Of the forgotten nonpareils to have been found by DVDing in the neglected, semi-seen recesses of Luis Buñuel’s world-class filmography, none may seem odder than “Death in the Garden” (1956). A semi-Marxist workers’ rebellion drama that segues into a lost-in-the-wilderness survival adventure? Shot in Mexico with a famous French cast (Simone Signoret, Michel Piccoli, Charles Vanel) right in the middle of the filmmaker’s “Mexican period,” during which the world had supposedly forgotten about him? In color? Except it’s not so freakish when you remember he shot a version of “Robinson Crusoe” two years earlier, in color, and that his Mexican films were making it to the Venice and Cannes fests, even before the earthquake of “Viridiana” in 1961.
Thumbnailing a filmography of almost 50 years is never easy or effective, but more to the point is the startling realization of how much Buñuel there is still to see. I count over a dozen Buñuels yet to be released on digital home video in our region (though several are available in French and Japanese editions), and a few that have never been released in any format ever. It goes without saying that theatrical revivals have not been a satisfactory recourse.
To appreciate a hybrid oddity like “Death in the Garden,” first you must toss the epithet “Surrealist”; if Buñuel is the only substantial Surrealist filmmaker, that’s exactly like saying he’s not Surrealist at all but merely Buñuelian. For that we can be thankful — Surrealism on film most often comes off as childish and redundant, and so Buñuel, in his infinite wisdom, modified the aesthetic to fit his sensible and sardonic temperament and circumstances.
The result is a filmography giddily high on the irrationality of ostensibly rational humanity, which Buñuel’s cinematic universe addresses with varying cocktail recipes of jaundice, amusement, dreamy vision and nihilist anthropology. This is why the exhumation of the forgotten movies is vital: you have to embrace the oeuvre’s entire thrust — you have to become a naturalized citizen of Buñuelonia — to grip his greatness. “Death in the Garden” brings us to a far corner of the territories, where Buñuel meets Werner Herzog, plunging into the Mexican jungle (standing in for an unnamed South American craphole where French is the only tongue), and exploring the suffocating wilderness for the difference between it and the domains considered fit for human society.
But we begin in a scrubby mining town, where insurrectionist diamond diggers are staging an overthrow of the local authorities, and where everyone else, from the police to the resident hooker (Signoret), are goldbricking scum. No news there, in terms of Buñuel’s perspective, but Vanel’s naïve miner is considered almost saintly, while Piccoli’s fresh-faced priest, while compromised, is so four-dimensional and flexible in his thinking that he’s not only perhaps the only cleric in Buñuel’s filmography that isn’t a mercenary hypocrite, but he’s also emblematic of Buñuel’s greatest characters, so open-minded and unpredictable and congenial that he’s a stand-in for the auteur himself. (The whole ensemble of “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” even while being mercilessly mocked, are all Buñuel avatars.)
Pressure in the town rises, riots break out, gunfights (!) and revolutionary street combat ensue. When a lone adventurer (Georges Marchal) wandering through gets framed and Vanel’s hapless schmo gets wounded, the two end up hijacking a boat heading down river, along with Signoret’s irritated tramp, Vanel’s mute daughter (Michèle Girardon) and Piccoli’s optimistic missionary.
Buñuel is no slouch in on-location action staging, by the measure of the 1950s, but the totemic use of the river and the jungle is remarkable, and might be seminal — it cannot help but recall Herzog’s use of location, although it’s entirely unlikely that Herzog, as a Bavarian schoolboy who never saw movies and never used a phone until he was 17, could’ve seen this sketchily available film. (Even Girardon, with her silky hair tangled in the overgrowth, evokes the nobleman’s daughter in “Aguirre,” vanishing into the leaves.) “There are animals all around us, eating each other, and we never see them,” someone groans as the renegades wander in the greenery starving, a plight temporarily redeemed, in a grand stroke, by the discovery of the ruins of a crashed plane, littering the rain forest with inappropriate objects.
Salvation and rosy character arcs are not in the offing, of course, but madness is. “Death in the Garden” — the bitter, Edenic irony of the title stings — is nothing if not a soak in existentialist fatalism, leavened by genre excitement and Buñuel’s fascinated regard for his fellow humanoids. It is also, it should be said, fantastically gorgeous — credit is doled out to cinematographer Jorge Stahl Jr. and to the mastering team, and the movie looks as if it were shot yesterday.